Alexander Alekhine (Part 5): Singing the Middle-aged Blues

Alexander Alekhine (Part 5): Singing the Middle-aged Blues

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Before we leap into Part 5 of this 7-part series, I’m going to make one last effort to help the “Alekhine was afraid of Capablanca” people grasp a handful of reality. After you read this, feel free to misquote me (and other sources), hide from facts, and rave all you want. So here are the facts:

  • First, Alekhine did lose more games in his career than Capablanca. No doubt about it. That’s to be expected due to style. Alekhine played risky, wild, imaginative chess, while Capablanca always stayed in a comfort zone... little risk, playing for complete control of the position. Due to their different styles (and I love both), Alekhine lost more games but created some of the richest masterpieces ever seen.
  • Alekhine did avoid Capablanca until 1922. Capablanca wasn’t bothered by this at all since Alekhine wasn’t in his class then. Alekhine avoided Capablanca so he could hone his skills, make a name for himself, and finally be in a position to challenge the Cuban. His early strategy makes sense and had nothing to do with fear. It had everything to do with reality. When they finally did meet in 1922, Alekhine’s skills had improved to such a degree that he was now just slightly weaker than Capablanca.
  • From 1922 to 1927 they played in three tournaments together (seven games total). The result was six draws, one win for Capablanca. Hardly the total domination everyone is yelling about.
  • A word about Capablanca not taking his match with Alekhine seriously. That’s true. BUT, you have to understand that Capablanca didn’t take ANY tournament or match seriously! He was born with scary-amazing talent, but was also lazy and didn’t care much for hard work. In my lifetime, I’ve seen many talented players fail to reach the top levels due to an inability to work. In general, you need both talent and a great work ethic to make it to the highest levels of the game – Capablanca was an exception since he ruled chess in his prime years on talent alone. But when he faced Alekhine in their match, the challenger had prepared to the max and was ready to wage war. 
  • Capablanca was Capablanca... parties, women, fun, and expecting the match victory to happen by itself. This usually worked for him – it worked against an old Lasker. It worked in most of his tournaments, but it didn’t work against a guy that was just a tad below him in strength but was physically and emotionally superior... a guy that had a talent Capablanca didn’t have: the ability to improve himself by enormous effort and sacrifice. The greater natural talent lost that match, but the better man won it.
Alekhine and Capablanca face off across the chessboard | Image Wikipedia
  • The ONLY person who was happy about the London Rules (which forced a challenger to come up with 10,000 gold dollars) was Capablanca. It made it almost impossible for anyone to challenge him. Alekhine had to swim through rivers of man-eating piranha to make that match happen. When Alekhine was champion, he was very willing to have a rematch, as long as Capablanca abided by the same rules Capablanca himself insisted everyone else follow. Capablanca refused and walked away. In this case, Capablanca avoided Alekhine, not the other way round.
  • One gentleman complained that, “Alekhine initially offered a rematch in which he would take more than half the money even if he lost.” But if he'd read Capablanca’s London Rules, he'd realize that Alekhine was merely throwing Capablanca’s demands back in his face. Capablanca’s rules stipulated: 1) The challenger has to come up with 10,000 dollars. 2) The challenger has to pay all travel expenses for both players. 3) The champion shall receive 20% ($2,000) as a fee. 4) Of the remaining 80% the winner will receive 60% and the loser 40%.
  • Thus, according to Capablanca’s London Rules, Capablanca was guaranteed more than half the money even if he lost.

But running away like a little spoiled boy that didn’t get his way wasn’t enough. Capablanca also insulted Alekhine in interviews right after the match, continued to bad mouth him afterwards, and was so insulting that Alekhine wanted nothing to do with him. If you don’t believe me, perhaps you’ll believe Max Euwe (in an interview with Hans Bouwmeester):

Euwe: “Capablanca gave interviews in which he said a lot of nice things about himself but nothing much about his opponent, which offended Alekhine. Capablanca took it for granted that Alekhine would play a return match. He wrote to Alekhine in an arrogant tone which, the latter replied, was not the tone in which you should write to a champion of the world. Alekhine wanted to be paid in gold dollars (at that time worth twice ordinary dollars) and on this basis Capablanca could not or would not pay. He just stopped negotiating.”

Bouwmeester: “If he had raised the gold dollars, would Alekhine have played?”

Euwe: “Certainly, he was not afraid of Capablanca.”


Max Euwe and Capablanca in an interview before Euwe's match with Alekhine


Finally, one last thing before getting into Part 5 of this series:

I doubt you could find many strong players (modern or from the past) who would deny that the Alekhine of 1930 and 1931 (his ultimate prime years) was, by far, the strongest player on Earth. This doesn’t mean that the ultimate prime Capablanca (1918 to 1924) was better or worse than the ultimate prime Alekhine (1930 to 1931)... fans can have fun arguing this for eternity.

And now, ONWARDS TO PART 5: 

Singing the Middle-aged Blues 

After his magnificent victories at San Remo 1930 and Bled 1931, fans did what all fans do – they think their hero is invincible, forgetting that he’s human, with human flaws, human worries, and a human body that, in time, breaks down. At 40 years of age, he was still the world’s best player, but he was also a “high-functioning alcoholic.” He drank heavily, he kicked everyone’s ass, and then he drank some more. Chess was the love of his life, but alcohol was the mistress that people in the know were aware of, while the public was not.

And so, tournaments came and went, and victories piled up with only an occasional blip to show that he wasn’t quite (close, but not quite!) the same unstoppable monster who devoured everyone in his path in 1930 and 1931.


Bern 1932

Alekhine 1st – 11 wins, three draws, one loss.

Euwe and Flohr came in a point behind.

Puzzle 1:

White’s a pawn ahead, but Black has two bishops and pressure against b3 as compensation. How did Alekhine solve his problems and claim a clear advantage?

Puzzle 2:

Puzzle 3:

White has a forced mate in 5 moves!

Puzzle 4:

London 1932

Alekhine 1st – seven wins, four draws, no losses.

Flohr came in second, a point behind.

Puzzle 5:

Puzzle 6:

Mexico City 1932

Alekhine and Kashdan tied for first, winning all their games (8 wins) and drawing each other.

Pasadena 1932

Alekhine 1st – seven wins, three draws, one loss (to Dake!) ahead of Kashdan, Dake, Reshevsky, Fine, and others.

Reuben Fine (from his book Chess Marches On):

“When I first met him, at Pasadena in 1932, I began to understand the secret of his genius. He was showing a game with Euwe played at Berne a few months earlier, and his eyes and bearing had a strange intensity which I had never seen before. The man loved chess, it was the breath of life to him. At the bridge table he would suddenly start talking about an obscure variation in the Scotch; on the train to Mexico he assiduously devoted four hours a day to the analysis of new lines; any game, played by anybody anywhere, was good enough to sit him down and evolve new ideas for hours on end; on off days and periods he amused himself by playing rapid transit. He lived for chess, and chess alone.”

Puzzle 7:

Paris 1933

Alekhine 1st – seven wins, two draws, no losses ahead of Tartakower, Lilienthal, Znoosko-Borovsky, and others. 

Puzzle 8:

Hastings 1933-34

Flohr 1st – Alekhine and Lilienthal = 2nd/3rd half a point behind.


Zurich 1934

Alekhine 1st – 12 wins, two draws, one loss

Euwe and Flohr 2nd/3rd a point behind

Others: Bogoljubov, Emanuel Lasker, Bernstein, Nimzowitsch, Stahlberg, etc.

Puzzle 9:

Puzzle 10:

Puzzle 11

Then came a second match with Bogoljubov:


World Championship Match 1934 (26 games)

Alekhine – 15 ½

Bogoljubov – 10 ½

Although Alekhine wasn’t quite what he used to be, neither was Bogoljubov, so the result was the same – another dominating performance by the champion. Though Bogoljubov should have won the first game (In a winning endgame for Bogoljubov, Alekhine claimed a draw by three=time repetition and, for reasons I don’t fully grasp, Bogoljubov went along with it even though it wasn’t a three-time repetition at all!), but after that Alekhine won the 2nd, 4th, 9th, and 11th games, losing only one. A three-game lead after only 11 games was a bit much, but it got even worse when Alekhine won games 16 and 17. The match was pretty much over here, but it continued for another nine games, though Bogoljubov wasn’t able to mount any kind of comeback.

Keep in mind that Hans Kmoch claimed that Alekhine was “drinking heavily” during this match. If that’s true, then Alekhine’s impressive defense of his title suddenly becomes astounding!


 Alexander Alekhine playing chess against Efim Bogoljubov | Image Wikipedia


Puzzle 12:

Black has just taken a White pawn on e5 with 28...Rxe5. It’s very threatening since 29.Qxe5?? fails to 29...Qxg2 mate. How did White deal with Black’s e5-capture?

Puzzle 13:

Puzzle 14:

Puzzle 15:

Orebro 1935

Alekhine 1st (ahead of Lundin, Stahlberg, and Stoltz)

Puzzle 16:

We’ll explore the Euwe matches (and the events in between them) in Part 6, but before bidding you adieu, I’ll share the following tale (a conversation between Miguel Najdorf and Yasser Seirawan about Alekhine), which I’ve grabbed from Yasser’s wonderful book, Chess Duels. (I should add that Najdorf playfully insisted on calling Yasser, Jasser):

GM Yasser Seirawan's book, Chess Duels | Image Amazon

“While in Poland, Miguel Najdorf played for a club that hosted a simultaneous display by Alexander Alekhine. The event was for forty players, but the club deliberately contrived that ten players were missing. They sought redress with Alekhine for the missing players and the lack of entry fees. Would he be willing to play twenty regular simultaneous games as well as playing another ten while blindfolded? Thirty players in all and the fee for forty boards would be fully paid. Alekhine agreed with the change. The club then secreted its very best players, including Miguel, into the room where the blindfold board games would be played. Meanwhile 20 weaker players would play the regular simultaneous games. While Alekhine mopped up the 20 sacrificial lambs, he had trouble in the ten blindfold games. In fact big trouble. In his blindfold game, Miguel played a Sicilian where he made a stock Exchange sacrifice against White’s c3-knight. Alekhine declined it, but there followed a …Rc3xa3 sacrifice which couldn’t be refused. Miguel won.

“Many years later Miguel and Alekhine contested a tournament game in Buenos Aires. The game ended in a draw and the two went out for dinner and ended up drinking together late at night. Giving a toast, Miguel saluted Alekhine as follows: ‘To the greatest chess player in the world, Doctor Alexander Alekhine, long health! Just remember I have a plus score against you.’ With that Miguel downed his drink. Alekine shook his head and responded, ‘Miguel, I may be completely drunk, but a draw doesn’t give you a plus score against me.’ And he in turn drained his glass.

“Miguel then asked Alekhine if he remembered a particular simultaneous display tour that he made in Poland. Alekhine frowned and puzzled, trying to remember. Several minutes passed by. ‘I don’t remember playing against you.’ Racking his brains, Alekhine tried to place Miguel’s face. Miguel reminded him that indeed they had not ‘met’ in the physical sense as he was in another room playing blindfold games. Again Alekhine frowned, shaking his head and fell deeply into thought. Finally he asked, ‘Did you give me the …Rxc3 and …Rxa3 sacrifice?’

“Miguel turned cold. ‘My God, Jasser. How is this possible? He gave a simultaneous game many years earlier, a random blindfold game and he remembers my sacrifice! You see, Jasser, that is what makes them (World Champions) so great. They have a fantastic memory and they don’t forgive or forget a loss!’”


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